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Preaching that Builds Bridges

Lessons from John Stott at His 100th Birthday
Preaching that Builds Bridges
Image: Jonathan D. Greene / Lightstock

April 27, 2021, would have been the 100th birthday of a preacher whose influence reached every corner of the planet: John R.W. Stott (1921-2011).

Before he turned 30, he was leading a thriving congregation in London; as the decades went by, the world became his parish. He inspired thousands of university students through international preaching trips. He wrote and edited shelves of books which shaped a generation of evangelicalism. When Christians from 150 nations gathered in 1974, he sat at the center of a global conversation on missions, as the chief architect of the Lausanne Covenant. When TIME Magazine named Stott as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2005, Billy Graham added his own endorsement: “I can’t think of anyone who has been more effective in introducing so many people to a biblical world view.” The rest of us will have to content ourselves with more modest callings!

What will preachers today learn from Stott? One of the most important themes in his teaching about preaching is as relevant today as it was in 1982 when Stott first published his classic book on homiletics, Between Two Worlds (hereafter, BTW). Living in an era of polarized Christianity, Stott framed the issue like this: “Conservatives are biblical but not contemporary, while … liberals and radicals are contemporary but not biblical … And almost nobody seems to be building bridges” (BTW, 144).

As we reflect on his legacy, we’ll consider a few lessons from his own attempt to bridge that divide.

Preach the Word

As a result of his evangelical convictions, Stott’s preaching was resolutely Biblical. He argued that the preacher’s task is “to expound” or “bring out of a text what is there.” And, in contrast with other models of preaching which might use a text only as a starting point for other reflections, Stott declared, “Our responsibility is to open it up in such a way that it speaks its message clearly, plainly, accurately, relevantly, without addition, subtraction, or falsification” (BTW, 125-6).

In his own day—as in ours—the label “expository preaching” could carry various connotations, including the idea of a dull lecture. Yet for Stott, nothing was boring about it.

To enter the pulpit with the confidence that God has spoken, that he has caused what he has spoken to be written and that we have this inspired text in our hands—ah! then our head begins to swim, our heart to beat, our blood to flow, and our eyes to sparkle, with the sheer glory of having God’s Word in our hands on our lips (The Contemporary Christian [hereafter, CC], 210).

The joy of hearing God’s own voice through Scripture is not reserved for the preacher. Stott’s hearers often felt as deeply moved. His expositions led many to Christ and Christian service, in London and abroad. After the 1964 Urbana Missionary Convention, one leader who heard Stott reflected, “God helping me, I am never going to enter the pulpit unprepared again … I want to let people hear the Word of God like Stott did this morning. I never realized how fascinating and instructive that kind of preaching is.”

Whatever your own thoughts about the term “expository preaching,” our generation will do well to hear Stott’s voice calling us back to the power of the Word of God. “Nothing,” he believed, “is more important for the life and growth, health and depth of the contemporary church than a recovery of serious biblical preaching” (CC, 208).

Of course, “serious biblical preaching” will require work. There is no substitute for time spent in thoughtful exegesis. In 1959, when he had served as Rector for nine years, Stott added a note of personal conviction in his pocket diary: “Resolved always … to begin Sunday sermon on previous Monday.” Perhaps a few of us will do well to learn from Stott and make a similar resolution today.

Preach for Today’s World

Stott believed that evangelical preaching must begin in the text of Scripture. Yet as the years went by, he increasingly emphasized that Biblical preaching should also resound with relevance for the modern world.

Most homiletical guides in the evangelical tradition devote extensive treatment to individual application. However, they tend to be thin when it comes to preaching for wider ethical concerns. Stott flipped that script.

In his classic book, Basic Christianity (1958), Stott argues that Christian discipleship has implications not only for individual and home life, but also for serving Christ in work, church, the neighborhood, and the world. In Between Two Worlds, Stott devotes a large section to addressing what is largely ignored in most homiletics textbooks: How Christian preachers can speak to broader ethical issues and even controversial cultural topics. Although he wrote four decades ago, he had in mind issues that feel no less relevant today: “poverty … abortion … civil rights and civil liberties … racism, nationalism, tribalism and human community” (BTW, 162).

In twenty-first-century America, Stott’s assessment of the evangelical landscape still rings true. On the one hand, preachers will often remain silent and “avoid these [controversial] topics altogether.” If preachers choose not to remain silent, however, the most common alternative is simply to “adopt a partisan position.” In an evangelical culture that oscillates between silence and partisanship, Stott laments that these approaches are unhealthy for discipleship and witness. (Amen, anyone?)

If the goal is neither to remain quiet nor to become a partisan puppet in the pulpit, what is a preacher to do? Stott argued that wise preachers should equip the congregation with Christian convictions through expository preaching. “It is the preacher’s responsibility to open up the biblical principles which relate to the problems of contemporary society, in such a way as to help everybody to develop a Christian judgment about them.”

To be sure, proclaiming biblical principles is not the same as prescribing all the social and political solutions—a task for which preachers typically lack expertise. Yet through proclaiming principles (justice, concern for the poor, the dignity of human life, etc.), the preacher can,

… inspire and encourage the opinion-formers and policy-makers in the congregation, who occupy influential positions in public life, to apply these principles to their professional life. … The pulpit should help them to develop their Christian thinking and so to penetrate their segment of the human community more deeply for Christ (BTW, 167).

In Stott’s approach, preaching with an eye to social and political issues is an equipping ministry to prepare the entire congregation to live wisely—as salt and light—in society. The result is not only sermons that sound relevant, but a collective Christian witness multiplied.

“We should be praying that God will raise up a new generation of Christian communicators,” Stott urges, “who are determined to bridge the chasm; who struggle to relate God’s unchanging Word to our ever-changing world; who refuse to sacrifice truth to relevance or relevance to truth; but who resolve instead in equal measure to be faithful to Scripture and pertinent to today” (BTW, 144).

Listen Before You Preach

How do we learn to build bridges from the ancient text to the modern world? If your preaching has become a bit thin or narrow, what can you do to grow in this dimension of preaching?

In Between Two Worlds—with a fuller explanation in The Contemporary Christian (1992)—Stott advocates for what he calls “the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening.’” What he means is that the wise preacher will “listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity” (CC, 13).

As expositors, we must listen to the voice of God in the scriptures above all. This is the first and most important act of listening.

Yet one of Stott’s distinctive contributions to evangelical homiletics is his emphatic claim that “double listening” also calls us to listen to the voices of others in the world around us. “The best preachers are always diligent pastors, who know the people of their district,” Stott observes. “And the quickest way to gain such an understanding is to shut our mouth … and open our eyes and ears … We need to ask people questions and get them talking” (BTW, 192).

For Stott, this included listening carefully to individuals in his congregation. One parishioner later reflected,

I needed a lot of guidance as a young Christian. John Stott never refused a request to let me come to see him and talk. … When one comes to him for advice … at that moment when the penitent one or the bewildered one is consulting him, this seeker is the most important person in the world, really the only person in the world.

Beyond listening carefully to individuals, Stott made a habit of listening to current ideas through frequent reading groups. Typically with a dozen people, Stott would discuss popular books that touched cultural trends. He relished these regular conversations with students and young professionals in London who, he joked, “dragged me into the modern world.”

His habit of “double listening” reached further still to include international and multicultural relationships. He advised that “it is important for [preachers] to listen to representatives of different generations as well as of different cultures,” noting that “the more diverse people’s backgrounds, the more we have to learn” (BTW, 192). And his life echoed his advice. Although there are too many examples to count, his trips in Latin America in the 1960s with Ecuadorian theologian René Padilla are a great illustration. These trips opened Stott’s eyes to global issues and deepened his concern for justice. Before the influential work that spread from Lausanne, John Stott traveled and observed. He listened and learned.

“The contemporary world is positively reverberating with cries of anger, frustration and pain. Too often, we turn a deaf ear to these anguished voices,” Stott explains. And with regard to the “pain of the poor and the hungry, the dispossessed and the oppressed,” Stott adds, “Many of us are only now waking up to the obligation which Scripture has always laid on the people of God to care about social justice. We should be listening more attentively to the cries and sighs of those who are suffering” (CC, 111).

Stott’s life and legacy demonstrate that, far from muting the truth, this approach to “double listening” will only amplify the gospel.

Practice What You Preach

In his first book on preaching, The Preacher’s Portrait (1961), Stott declares, “We must put the same amount of effort into living well that we put into preaching well” (75). All preachers understand the importance of ethos. You can carefully craft a true and engaging message, but your actions before and after speaking will somehow speak louder than your words.

In the case of John Stott, his life resonated with the message of the gospel that he proclaimed. A charming confirmation comes from his secretary for over 60 years, Frances Whitehead, who explained,

I can say without hesitation that my earliest impressions of John as a man of the utmost integrity have proved abundantly true. He was not only a brilliant Bible expositor, but also one who sought constantly to live out what he believed and taught. He was a man of deep convictions and total commitment, and there was no dichotomy between faith and practice. He lived to serve and please God, to bring glory to his name, and to boast in nothing but the cross of Jesus Christ.

When I read that, I am challenged by the question of what my life is saying to those on staff, from church, in my neighborhood, or in my family.

On the occasion of John Stott’s 100th birthday, you’ll go away stronger if you re-read a chapter or two of Between Two Worlds, The Contemporary Christian, The Cross of Christ, or Basic Christianity.

Perhaps it would be equally appropriate simply to make time to listen carefully to someone. Find a new believer and listen like they are the only person on the planet. Find a few students and think together about some of the great burdens weighing on our world. Find someone from a different culture and assume you have plenty to learn. Above all else, let’s listen to the voice of God in Scripture.

At Stott’s Canadian memorial (he had services in his honor in multiple nations), J.I. Packer said, “John Stott was the most modest of men. Complements embarrassed him … If he could have briefed me in advance for this message now, he would have said, ‘Focus on Christ, not on me.’”

The best way preachers can honor the memory of John Stott is to love what he loved. Let’s cherish the ancient message of Christ and him crucified—that powerful message which reaches as deep as our hearts and as wide as the world we live in today.

(Additional Note: Quotes from Stott’s contemporaries in this article can be found in John Stott: The Making of a Leader or John Stott: A Global Ministry by Timothy Dudley-Smith , or in Portraits of a Radical Disciple: Recollections of John Stott’s Life and Ministry, edited by Christopher J.H. Wright.)

Josh Fenska serves as lead pastor at Redeemer Community Church in Aurora, IL. You can find him on Twitter, @JoshFenska.

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